20 November, 2020

The Chow Line

Certain people in prison don't follow the rules. They make what should be a simple procedure – waiting in line for food, taking the tray when it's shoved out the window – a thrice-daily struggle by the rest of us to maintain our patience.

Wheelchair pushers and those with special diets may jump to the front of the line. There's no rule saying that this is okay, it's just a custom that's developed over the years. Most everyone accepts it. But because it's an unofficial practice, there are no checks against others going to the front of the line, too, people without exceptional needs, who nevertheless seem to think of themselves as exceptional. They walk right past the rest of us, indifferent or oblivious to our frustration. It might actually be less offensive if they flipped us all the bird as they sauntered by. There's something to be said for honesty.

At popular meals, line-jumpers are especially prevalent. The moment a guard's not looking, they duck under the railing at the first available gap. Some are less blatant, only shuffling ahead a spot or two, to where their buddy's standing. After all, who wants to wait for food alone? I see at least a couple of double-tray getaways at any given meal, so the guard posted beside the window, tasked with ensuring that no one steals an extra tray, clearly isn't having the desired effect.

No line-jumper gets so much a finger wagged at them. In the two years I've lived here at ERDCC, I've never seen anyone reprimanded for that. The line only gets longer as more of those with special needs (and those who simply believe that they're special) pile in. I've actually seen the line-jumpers amass their own crooked line, approaching from the opposite side of the window. Ironically, as I waited and watched, it grew to be longer than the legitimate one. At that point you really have to wonder.

A couple of my acquaintances with money are fed up (no pun intended) with the hassle. They avoid ERDCC's dining hall as best they can, instead eating canteen-bought food in their cells. I've blogged before about the questionable food offered for sale here (see "Canteen, the Small Mercy" or "Prison Canteen Food Roundup"). There's some variety, but nutrition takes a backseat. The inventory mainly just allows for minor variations on the burrito.

Because I've got to have my vegetables and fresh fruit every day, I bear the line, hungry amid the unwashed masses. When the queue barely moves ahead, we ask ourselves, Are there no clean cups again? The kitchen's forever running out of something. Maybe it's sporks this time. Last week, the excitement for a unheard-of treat – enormous Famous Amos soft-batch chocolate-chunk cookies – was palpable. Rampant theft and line-jumping, however, cleaned out almost every last package. My wing was the second-to-last released to eat. With fifteen people remaining ahead of me, the line suddenly froze, then didn't move for twenty-one minutes. Everyone before us had gotten their gigantic calorific treats; once movement at last resumed, the rest of us got some stale off-brand vanilla sandwich cookies that cooks scavenged from the warehouse. I ate the chili but gave the cookies away.

When you're in line, you're in line, notionally locked in by a waist-high railing. It's almost like a Seinfeld scenario, if Seinfeld had been broadcast on HBO. The guy behind you, without exception, stands way too close. He sometimes has such bad halitosis that you'd swear someone soiled their pants – until he stops talking and the stench-cloud dissipates. Occasionally someone nearby farts. If the frustration of waiting in these conditions becomes too much, it'd take nothing to swing a leg over the rail and leave.

But often I feel like I've invested too much time to give up. I feel a sense of commitment. I say to myself, I'm gonna eat that shit if it kills me. Really, though, I hope it doesn't.

1 comment:

  1. it saddens me to no avail. Innocence behind bars.


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